In late 2007 when Rolling Stone and Billboard announced what to expect in the new year music-wise, it appeared that the women would be back on top, with solid projects from a trifecta of one-of-a-kinds: Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Mariah Carey. They would be a tripod of record sales and record "comebacks," if you will, but you know what they say: if you kick out one of the legs of a tripod, the whole thing falls. And after a less than lackluster return from Janet early in the first quarter, the music scene was looking pretty grim for our favorite divas. Mariah Carey's eleventh studio album (if you don't count the compilations-- and if you do, then this is her fifteenth) was set to rival Janet's release but then was pushed back... and then back again. For films that is often the kiss of death-- something for which Madonna most certainly must have been hoping would prove true for music, as well. Rumors have always circled the two in Page Six that they are "dueling divas," even going so far one time as to chuck ice chips at each other from across a room (allegedly), and she has her twelfth studio (twenty-third overall) project due out just two weeks after MC. So with Janet barely hitting the charts, and Whitney still too much of a stone mess for a comeback (even though one has been rumored), it looked like April, and 2008 in general, was going to be all about these two artists-- one known for her voice, one known for her performances, but both known for their headlines-- and it didn't look good.
Then two days ago Leona Lewis finally hit the United States with her debut album Spirit like a harsh wind blowing west from the UK, upsetting the Ms' plans. Already having received critical and popular success overseas after being deemed "the next Mariah Carey" by Simon Cowell, Lewis had a lot to live up to here, where her single "Bleeding Love" had been playing for weeks without much mention of her other material. The full album was only available to pre-order through iTunes about two weeks before the release date, and very few publications had write ups on it. Perhaps that was because the mp3s all had been available through file sharing software for months, after being ripped from the original UK album, or perhaps that was because the American press underestimated a newbie who would be followed by two proven heavyweights.
Lewis' first album is not perfect by any means: there are some songs that feel like the arrangement doesn't match the lyrical tone, and in this fast-paced world, it suffers from a wider variety of ballads than it does more hip-hop inspired, up-tempo tracks. Spirit is a throwback to the old-school style of Carey's debut album in that way (right down to the copycat cover and inevitable tear-jerking gospel choir-backed track "Footprints in the Sand"), and she even has moments where her voice mimics that of diva-in-training Christina Aguilera, but Lewis is at her best when she tries to break away from the comparisons and just sings from her heart. "Bleeding Love" is a strong first single, but the end bars sound a little too perfect in pitch and tone, yet lacking the emotion that needs to be present in such big notes. Her rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is haunting in its tone, though, and proves that "Bleeding Love" was clearly just the producers' influence to further draw the Carey comparison. Lewis is best when she's flirty and fun, like on "The Best You Never Had," as well as serious and raw, like on "Yesterday," which would be my pick for a second single if she's going to follow the trend of releasing a ballad second.
Carey's first single off E=MC2 (dropping April 15) was "Touch My Body," a fun, sexy, bangin' track perfect for bumping out the speakers in your car or the club. It doesn't take itself too seriously, which appears to be the theme of the whole album in general. While she has her trademark ballads and inspirational songs to showcase her incomparable vocals (one of which is her second single "Bye Bye"), she fills the list with spicy flavor and even a dash of comedy, too (who didn't smile at "I will hunt you down" or the Jamaican accent she adopted for "Cruise Control"?). Carey might want to think about naming her next album "Evolution" because that is truly what her last two have been: she has traveled a long, rocky road to get to where she is today, and those experiences are mirrored in her music. Almost at age forty, Carey seems to have finally come into her own.
Unfortunately Carey's full album (minus the bonus tracks on the imports) was leaked two weeks before its commercial release, but Madonna's camp seems to be doing a much better job to keep Hard Candy wrapped in its cellophane until April 29. "4 Minutes," produced by Timbaland and featuring Justin Timberlake, was released as the first single and set a flurry of discussion on the internet as to the new style she has adopted this time. After western get-up, faux British accents, henna, Kabbalah, neon, and throw-back disco, it's hard to know just what to expect from the Queen of Reinvention, but Madonna would be remiss not to continue to follow Timbaland's lead, as has been proven to be increasingly lucrative and reaches a wider audience than her usual groupies. After all, she has always followed a fad (and you know what they say about those: “once they’re gone, they don’t come back”— dr. dre), but the funky, urban, growling beat of Timbaland is clearly around to stay for quite awhile and has already proven quite successful. If for no other reason that to stay in the ring with these two ladies, she needs to hold onto this trend and ride it as far and wide as she can.
Though it doesn't look like Mimi or Madge will be abdicating anytime soon (nor should they!), they may have to move over a bit because Lewis is creeping up fast, carving a well-deserved place for the next generation of powerhouse women in music. Only time will tell if she can take her place as the third leg, so to speak, or if the two current powerhouses will scorn rather than embrace the new girl, but things are definitely, finally looking up.